I was worried that Reese Witherspoon’s desert odyssey would be mawkish – but with sarcasm and shared history, it punched me in the gut
Published on 10 March 2015 by The Guardian
Not long after Reese Witherspoon sets off into the Oregon desert in Wild, the voiceover begins: “You can quit at any time. You can quit at any time.”
Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, the American writer who in her 20s, after the sudden death of her young mother, sets off in too-small boots to hike 1,100 miles along the Pacific Crest trail. She is naive in so many ways, a grieving child trying to figure out how to go on. Strayed wrote a memoir about the journey, one stuffed with metaphors of trauma and survival – her fellow hikers christened the enormous pack she hauled around “Monster” – but also leavened by self-mocking and details about the absurdities of trail life. It was inevitable that Hollywood would want to tell her story.
I’d resisted Wild, as I feared the threat of Tinseltown-engineered emotion – the George Clooney ghost sequence in Gravity comes to mind. I don’t know why or when it happened, but between the age of 18 – when I pulled over my parents’ car to bawl my eyes out after watching The English Patient – and now, almost two decades later, I’ve developed a mild allergy to films that make me sad. If a song gets me down, it’s an atmospheric disturbance that will soon pass. If a movie does the same, the feeling can linger for days. And then there was the threat of boredom: not only would I not walk 1,100 miles by myself, I wasn’t sure I could spend two hours alone watching someone else do it. Yet I was wrong to think that voiceover signalled something mawkish and ripe for ridicule.